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For St. Pete’s Ben Diamond, challenge will be to recoup losses by Democrats

Diamond, the designated incoming House Democratic leader in Tallahassee, will be directing his party’s 2022 House campaign efforts.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D- St. Petersburg, right, on the floor of the Florida House, 5/3/17.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D- St. Petersburg, right, on the floor of the Florida House, 5/3/17.
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 26

In the 2020 election, Florida Democrats hoped to gain seats in the Legislature, but instead suffered substantial losses, including several Tampa Bay area House races.

Now, St. Petersburg state Rep. Ben Diamond, as the designated incoming House Democratic leader, will be directing the party’s 2022 House campaign efforts.

In an interview, Diamond wouldn’t discuss strategy or specific goals for gaining seats, but said he hopes the fading pandemic will eliminate a handicap Democrats faced in 2020 — lack of door-to-door and in-person campaigning.

He also hopes the popularity of President Joe Biden’s pandemic rescue legislation will boost Democratic chances.

“We have to get back to the basics,” including recruiting candidates with reputations for leadership in the community and pushing them to get out on the street, Diamond said.

State Rep. Ben Diamond of Florida House District 68.
State Rep. Ben Diamond of Florida House District 68. [ Diamond campaign ]

“The candidates need to show that they’re willing to earn the votes — put on the campaign T-shirt and go door to door,” he said. “We’re going to be talking every week to our candidates, not just about how much money they’ve raised but also how many doors they knocked on and how many conversations they had.”

In 2018, a gain of five state House seats raised the minority Democrats’ hopes of reaching numbers that would give them significant influence on legislation, which they haven’t had for decades.

Instead, in 2020, they lost five seats — three incumbents unseated and two previously Democratic-held open seats flipped — and failed to flip several Republican seats considered vulnerable.

That took them back to a House balance of 42 Democrats to 78 Republicans.

It was a crucial loss, because next year’s Legislature will redraw legislative and congressional districts for the coming decade. With a Republican governor and control of both the House and Senate, Republicans will have a free hand to draw districts to their own advantage.

Locally, the Dems’ 2020 losses included incumbent Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport; the open seat previously held by Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota; and failure to flip seats of Tampa Republicans Rep. Jackie Toledo and retired Rep. Jamie Grant.

Webb and Julie Jenkins, who challenged Toledo, said they’re both watching the political climate to decide on possible runs next year; both said they see reasons for optimism.

But the redrawn districts should go into effect for the 2022 race, making predictions uncertain.

“How the race gets framed at the top of the ticket is very important,” Diamond said. The pandemic rescue package is “an enormously popular piece of legislation, and we have President Biden and Democrats in Washington to thank for that.”

“We have an opportunity to talk about how we are the party that wants to help working Floridians.”

Canady’s wife seeks House seat

Jennifer Canady of Lakeland, wife of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, looks like the early frontrunner in the race for a Lakeland state House seat.

Jennifer Canady of Lakeland, wife of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, is a candidate for a Lakeland state House seat.
Jennifer Canady of Lakeland, wife of state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, is a candidate for a Lakeland state House seat. [ Jennifer Canady ]

Florida judicial conduct regulations prohibiting judges’ involvement in partisan politics complicate her campaign. Charles Canady has not contributed, and her campaign literature mentions his name but not his occupation and doesn’t use his picture.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady. [ Florida Supreme Court ]

Experts on judicial conduct said it’s very unlikely that being married to a state House member could create a conflict of interest for Justice Canady, forcing him to recuse himself from a case — although one said he could conceive of a rare situation where that could occur.

Jennifer Canady, a teacher and administrator at a Lakeland Christian school, has some key hallmarks of a winning Polk County candidate — an endorsement from Sheriff Grady Judd and contributions from executives of the Lakeland-based Publix grocery chain.

Two other Republicans, Nicholas Greg Poucher and Phillip E. Walker, have filed in the race. No Democrat has filed in the strongly Republican-leaning district.

In February, the first month of her campaign, Canady raised $86,415, while Walker raised $17,970 in two months and Poucher hasn’t yet filed a fundraising report.

Canady’s total was boosted by at least 30 contributions from law firms, lawyers or their family members, many for the maximum $1,000, out of 245 total contributions.

Asked whether that was because of her husband’s influence, she said, “Absolutely not,” and that the contributions came from her own personal relationships with donors.

On issues, she calls herself “a conservative Republican (and) pro-life,” concerned about “jobs, helping folks get back to work, keeping taxes low, supporting the men and women of law enforcement.”

She said she favors school choice, “but I also believe public schools need to be supported. You have to have strong public schools.”

Asked whether a justice married to a legislator could experience conflict of interest over litigation involving the state, judicial ethics expert Bruce Rogow, retired founding professor at the Nova Southeastern University law school, said no.

He said litigation against the state rarely names the Legislature as a defendant, much less individual legislators; and the spouse being simply one of a group of legislators who voted for a law being challenged in court would not create a conflict of interest for the judge.

Louis Virelli of Stetson University law school, who has researched and written on judicial recusals, mostly agreed but said unusual circumstances could create an exception.

He said judges must recuse themselves from cases when their impartiality “might reasonably be questioned,” a standard meant to ensure both fairness to litigants and a public perception of impartiality.

He said a problem could potentially arise if the legislator married to a judge was singularly identified with an issue before the court — “If it was the focus of her campaign or central to her political career,” he said.

Bilirakis rated effective

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, got high marks for effectiveness in a rating by the Center for Effective Lawmaking, a partnership between the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis.

The rating called Bilirakis the most effective Congress member from the Tampa Bay area; the most effective Republican in the state’s congressional delegation; and the 12th most effective Republican in Congress.

The Center said it uses computer scoring to consider all bills introduced from 1973-2018, taking account of the number of bills each member introduces and whether those bills were acted on in committee or the House floor or became law.

Newton kicks off mayoral campaign

Former state Rep. Wengay Newton will kick off his mayoral campaign with two events in the coming month.

Mayoral candidate and former state Rep. Wengay Newton.
Mayoral candidate and former state Rep. Wengay Newton.

He’ll host a Zoom town hall and Q&A with the candidate at 7 pm March 30. An invitation link for the Zoom event is on the “Events” tab of the Newt4StPeteMayor Facebook page.

He’ll also hold an “official campaign kickoff” at his annual we will be hosting Rep. Newt’s 14th Annual Appreciation BBQ a 2 pm April 24 at Dell Holmes Park.

Crist, Eskamani at Hillsborough Dems funder

Two potential candidates for governor — U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg and state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando — along with newly elected state Rep. Michele Rayner of St. Petersburg, will be the headliners at the Hillsborough County Democratic Party’s Spring Fling fundraiser, a live and virtual event, May 1 at 6 p.m.

Tickets for the outdoor live event at Sail Plaza at the Tampa Convention Center are sold out, but $46 invitations for the virtual event are available through the party’s Facebook page.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com.